Katy Perry's jumble of sugar and spice: Unwrapping the complicated appeal of this year's Super Bowl half-time star

Perry wants to be pop music's Lucille Ball, but her Technicolor kitsch upstages her talent

By Annie Zaleski

Published February 1, 2015 11:00PM (EST)

Katy Perry       (AP/John Shearer)
Katy Perry (AP/John Shearer)

When Katy Perry performs today at Super Bowl XLIX, she'll join an elite group of pop artists to have graced the game's halftime show in recent years—among them, Madonna, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars. For the 30-year-old megastar, her ambitions for the massive performance are surprisingly simple: "I want to bring the humor, I want to bring the color, I want to bring the sass and I want to bring the incredible joy," she told the Daily Mail.

These qualities, of course, also sum up Perry's musical aesthetic and career to this point. Her albums are full of frothy, bulletproof-pop confections devised by her and collaborators such as Dr. Luke, Bonnie McKee and Max Martin; songs effortlessly veer between soft-glow synthpop, danceable neo-disco and sweeping ballads, with whispers of EDM, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop thrown in for good measure. In concert, Perry brings her vision to life in a brightly colored cartoon dreamland that in the past has resembled a cross between a rave at Willy Wonka's candy factory and "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic." It's during these marathon shows that her overarching lyrical tropes—marching to the beat of a different drummer, finding perfect love, staying strong in the face of adversity—are most striking and empowering.

Certainly Perry's neon-and-rainbows veneer is charming—to a point. But this kitsch sometimes overwhelms her music. Although the rah-rah, screw-the-haters sentiment of mega-hit "Roar" is inspiring and sincere, the song's lyrics ("I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire/'Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar") aren't clever, just nicking themes from "Rocky." The use of shallow, tired physical descriptors throughout "California Gurls" ("California girls, we're unforgettable/Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top") is cloying. And the less said about her early hit "I Kissed a Girl" and the way it plays into every insulting stereotype about girl-on-girl makeouts, the better. At other times, Perry's over-the-top pageantry has been an inadvertent detriment. Her moments of high-profile cultural appropriation—including the notorious geisha performance at the AMAs and her exaggerated turn as a bar mitzvah host in the "Birthday" video—were tone deaf, even if she insisted she meant nothing malicious by either of them.

These lowest-common-denominator references are frustrating, because Perry doesn't need to be edgy to attract attention; her songwriting is strong enough to stand on its own. During the Prismatic world tour, a mid-set break found her strapping on a guitar to belt out "The One That Got Away," a perfect snapshot of ephemeral summer romance that matches memories of "[making] out in your Mustang to Radiohead" to regrets over how things ended. The piano-based "By the Grace of God" is an affecting pep talk to herself about staying strong and moving forward after her divorce from Russell Brand; "Not Like the Movies," meanwhile, acknowledges that perfect romance is actually very imperfect. Fans might come for the self-empowerment of "Firework"—but stay for Perry's genuine reflections about her own struggles.

What's perhaps more impressive is that Perry's emotional complexity isn't an act; she's always seemed to be completely comfortable in her skin, warts and all. Even if her music comes across as grating, as a person she's almost impossible to dislike, because she appears to be so normal. Her Twitter feed is a conversational mix of emojis, self-deprecation, chatter about Girl Scout cookies and adorable things she's found on the Internet. In interviews, she is cheerfully honest about everything from her über-Christian upbringing to believing in aliens. And in her 2012 documentary, "Katy Perry: Part of Me," scenes depicting her fan meet-and-greets or her candid backstage interactions are completely lacking pretense or sugarcoating: As the documentary unfolds (and her marriage crumbles) Perry visibly grows more exhausted and vulnerable. But she never complains about the brutal traveling pace or her life falling apart. It's hard to find fault with someone so committed to becoming successful—and so confident about who they are and what they stand for.

Although the notion that a pop star has to be perfect and untouchable is increasingly antiquated, it's still refreshing (if not a little jarring) to confront someone like Perry. Because she's flawlessly assimilated the different facets of her personality—the flirty sexual being, the blood-sweat-and-tears songwriter, the fun-loving party girl, the earnest coffeehouse performer— she's not easy to pigeonhole or criticize. She's a jumble of sugar and spice: someone once banned from "Sesame Street" for her supposedly scandalous dress neckline and a slapstick goofball fond of shooting whipped cream from her breasts. Her recent Twitter proclamation, "I want to be the Lucille Ball of pop music," is actually already rather true; she's not afraid to have fun, even at her own expense.

Plus, this effortless weirdness and honesty explains why her appeal is so broad. Kids might gravitate toward her cutesy visuals, as well as simple messages that comfort their own insecurities. However, her music works on a more sophisticated level for teens and adults, who are not only living through some of the hellish heartbreak (or drunken nights) of which Perry speaks—they're able to see her songs as wisdom doled out by a sage friend.

Last summer, Perry mused to Rolling Stone about where she might go in the future: "If I didn't want to kick-ball-change anymore, I know one day I will make an acoustic record. I'm not always going to fit in my costumes, but I'm always going to fit behind my guitar. That feels very much like home to me." The Prismatic tour set also hinted at a more adult direction; it was less a psychedelic candy emporium and more of a funky, offbeat discotheque. What's intriguing is that Perry is talented enough to really go in any direction she wants. The big question is, what expectations are there for her music and career? A stripped-down, singer-songwriter-leaning collection wouldn't be strange—after all, she released "MTV Unplugged" in 2009—but Perry is a perennial chart-topper as an electropop juggernaut. At this point, the type of spectacle she'll no doubt unleash at the Super Bowl is her normal state. But performing at such a high-profile level has to be physically and emotionally stressful—just ask Lady Gaga, whose elaborate tours in recent years have led to exhaustion and injuries. Juggling the obligations of being Katy Perry is one thing; figuring out the potential trajectory of Katy Perry is a whole 'nother ballgame indeed.

Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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